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230th Anniversary of the Kościuszko Insurrection

The objectives of the Kościuszko Insurrection were the ”freedom, territorial integrity and independence” of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The decision to start an insurrection was made by the exiled leaders of the Four-Year Sejm, on hearing about the Second Partition of the country. Tadeusz Kościuszko, hero of the American Revolution and the war with Russia of 1792, who was designated to lead the uprising, sought support from revolutionary France, but to no avail.

Conspiracy spread across the country among the military and civilians alike. General Madaliński brigade’s march from Ostrołęka to the south on the night of 12 March 1794 was a signal to start the insurrection. The brigade was to draw Russian troops away from Kraków so that Kościuszko could speak in the ancient Polish capital. On 24 March 1794, after a holy mass and the blessing of backswords, the general took an oath in the Main Square and became the commander of the uprising.

The chances for the success of the insurrection hinged on the participation – apart from the gentry – of townspeople and, more importantly, peasantry, which was the most numerous social class. The Battle of Racławice of 4 April, which ended in victory thanks to the attack of scythemen on the enemy’s cannons, showed that the Russians could be defeated. Kościuszko, wearing a peasant’s coat, appealed to the people to join the army. On 7 May near Połaniec, he issued a proclamation granting peasants personal freedom, releasing the combatants from serfdom and reducing serfdom for other peasants. Although the participation of peasants in the uprising never became a mass movement, the Kościuszko’s slogan “They feed and defend” expressed the co-responsibility of peasants for the fate of the homeland, and over time became the motto of the peasant movement.

The Warsaw insurrection of 17 and 18 April liberated the city from Russians. Five days later, the uprising spread into Lithuania. Kościuszko and his army reached the capital city in late June. Then, Russia and Prussia decided to lay siege to Warsaw and suppress the insurrection. Attacks on the city mounted until the end of August did not succeed in breaking the resistance of the defenders. When the province of Greater Poland joined the fight upon Kościuszko’s call to arms, Frederick William II of Prussia withdrew his troops from Warsaw to defend the land captured during the Second Partition of Poland. The Russians also retreated and the capital city was free. However, the disproportion between the forces of the insurrection and the invaders remained tremendous.

Poland’s fate was decided at the Battle of Maciejowice on 10 October 1794. Kościuszko had moved there to attack a Russian corps before it was joined by another. Outnumbered by the enemy, the Polish troops were defeated and their commander, wounded, was taken prisoner. Aleksandr Suvorov’s army captured the Warsaw suburb of Praga and on 4 November massacred its civilian inhabitants. Terrorised by this atrocity, Warsaw capitulated on 9 November 1794. The defeat of the insurrection entailed the final partition of Poland.

Zofia Zielińska

The obverse of the silver coin features symbols of the uprising’s battles – noblemen’s sabres and peasants’ upright scythes. On the reverse of the silver coins, there is an image of the 1896 relief by Alfred Daun showing the blessing of the backswords of General Tadeusz Kościuszko and General Józef Wodzicki. The original relief is located on the wall of the Loreto house in the Capuchin Monastery in Kraków.

The obverse of the gold coin has the banner of the Krakow scythemen regiment, with the motto “Żywią i bronią” [They feed and defend] given to it by Kościuszko, as it was originally spelled. The banner is an exhibit in the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw. The reverse of the gold coin shows a portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko with the Polish Virtuti Militari Order and the US Order of Cincinnatus, based on the steel engraving by Antoni Oleszczyński from 1829.